Cover photo: Kristin Laughter
The Lower East Side of Manhattan, a glamorous adult playground packed with trendy restaurants, lounges and bars, had an unmistakably more bohemian vibe in the 1990s. Back then, artists, musicians, drag queens and drug dealers filled the neighborhood’s dive bars. Underneath these untamed streets, in a dingy basement used for rehearsal space, arose The Slackers, one of America’s oldest and most prolific bands to make a name for themselves playing Jamaican music.
The Slackers are known for their modern take on the rock steady subgenre of reggae music, along with a blend of ska, reggae, jazz, Latin music and vintage rock n’ roll. Since the release of their debut album “Better Late Than Never” in 1996, they have released a baker’s dozen worth of studio albums alongside three live albums. The band continues to make original music and tour internationally, playing over 100 shows every year. To date, they’ve performed in a total of 46 American states, seven Canadian provinces, 22 European countries, five Latin American countries, and two Asian countries.
From this impressive body of work which has pleased fans around the world for close to three decades, today Rootfire looks back at their fifth studio album, released originally in 2002, The Slackers and Friends.
Prior to that point, the band had mainly put out ska and rock steady music with a signature trait—the distinctive, thickly Bronx-accented singing of bandleader Vic Ruggiero. However, with this album, the music trended toward more of a true reggae sound, while also branching out with some more diverse compositions, offering a mix of lovers rock, rock steady, roots, dub and garage rock. Adding a more authentic Jamaican flavor, The Slackers & Friends features vocal collaborations with some heavy hitters from the old school Jamaican reggae community, including Glen Adams of The Upsetters, Cornell Campbell, Ranking Joe, The Congos and Susan Cadogan.
After connecting with Vic at a recent Slackers show at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, he agreed to answer some questions about this special album and the band in general.
RF: How did these amazing collaborations come about? Were the recordings done remotely, or did you travel down to Jamaica to record, or some other arrangement?
VR: That album was done back in the analog days still. We were mixing to DAT, so we had some riddims mixes from the records we’d made and when we had the opportunity, I’d invite singers to record at a studio I was working at called Noise NY.
For example, we knew Doreen Shaffer from doing gigs with the Skatalites, and Glen Adams helped produce our records and toured with us. We backed up Cornell Campbell for a gig, so that was another opportunity. The guy who owned the Jammyland record shop also owned the studio, so one day I walked in and he says, “The Congos are sleeping in the studio. I just got them from the airport!” It was Congo-Roy and two other guys who were doing gigs in NYC, and we ended up recording a record for them (which has never been released…Argh!!) But I used two of the tracks for Slackers and Friends.
RF: From the collaborators, only Chris Murray was not from Jamaica. Rather, he was from the ska scene in Canada. How did you link with him?
VR: Chris toured with the Slackers on our first cross-country tour and we told him we’d love to be his band on a record sometime. So that’s from the Chris Murray record we finally made together called Slackness (which was released much later than our Slackers and Friends album).
RF: Do you have any favorite tracks from this album?
VR: That record is such a great collection of memories. It’s hard to say. Cornell Campbell was very special because we only met him for those few days. But really, I’m more a fan on that record than in the band. I have a blast listening to it.
RF: “Matey Exterminator” stands out as a real departure from anything else The Slackers have done. From what I can tell, it reuses the “Pets of the World” riddim, but brings in sort of an EDM element. Can you tell us a little bit about the creation of this track?
VR: We had a Berlin buddy named Kriz the Reducer who made a remix of the track. He was a drum n’ bass guy. We dug it, but didn’t know what to do with it, so I was in the studio with Ari Up making her record and I asked if I could play it for her. She said, “I have lyrics for that…. Run it!” She did one take and it was perfect! Then she says, “Let me double the vocals.” And again, just like that…Bam! Done! And it’s awesome. Eugene Hutz from Gogol Bordello told me he played that track at his DJ night every night. Ari was the best. I miss her.
RF: Could you speak a bit about how you were introduced to Jamaican music and the songs/albums/artists and/or producers that were your biggest influences?
VR: I was just lucky to have good people around me who played me these records. Guys in bands, friends, the guys at Jammyland records. Everything I heard, I would try to do. And no one knew how to make the sounds we were hearing. We just guessed, and all discussed it. “What’s that noise? Is it a guitar? A piano? Percussion?” Reggae was such a collection of unfamiliar sounds that we had no idea. There was no YouTube back then, so there were like two movies that had shots of the old studios in Jamaica and we’d watch ‘em over and over and study them like they were court evidence. I had no idea how to even play the reggae chops on a guitar. I was looking if I could see their hands in the movie “The Harder They Come” to see how to do it.
RF: I am a huge fan of The Aggrolites, whom I view as sort of the west coast version of The Slackers, and I had the pleasure of meeting Jesse Wagner after a show in Philly years ago. I asked him about The Slackers and he mentioned that you two were good friends. Have you ever collaborated and/or performed with Jesse? How would you compare your two bands?
VR: It’s the same story. They were out on the West Coast watching the same two movies… Haha! The Aggrolites are part of a scene that was even more studious than us out East. What we didn’t learn from old records, we would then learn from watching each other. I’d be like “Oh! That’s how you make that sound!” I’d try to play the organ parts that I thought I heard, and then I’d see The Aggrolites and think, “Oh! Maybe that’s the way you play it.” At the time I was one of three organ players in the world I think that was trying to play those choppy parts from 60s and early 70s reggae.
Plus, I think you can’t even hear your own band when you’re playing it, so you have to watch another band doing kinda what you do to see if it works.
Now I play with Jesse in RWW (Reggae Workers of the World) and we have a blast making these sounds still.
RF: Looks like you are still actively touring and putting out new music as recently as 2016. To what do you attribute your longevity? Are you working on any new music that will be released in the near future? How has your lifestyle as a professional musician evolved over the decades?
VR: I just have a lot to do. I’ve got songs I make up and when I think I have something to share, I share it. As long as I can make music, I will try. I’m lucky that people like what I do. That’s all. I’m as surprised as they are in the crowd or listening to a record. I just keep trying to express myself and get it out. I just made a new RWW record (RWW II) and people seem to really like it. The latest Slackers album too…people ask for the new songs…I’m amazed, really. I mean, I like ‘em but I still can’t believe when people are singing the words and rocking out to them…so cool. It still knocks me out sometimes.
After many years, it was a pleasure watching The Slackers perform once again at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City. Still at the top of their game, the band performed tracks new and old as sharply as they were dressed in their snazzy suits, flatcaps and fedoras. If you are unfamiliar with this awesome band, dive into their deep catalog and enjoy the many treasures.